Caring about someone who has borderline personality disorder (BPD) is often really difficult, and it can be particularly difficult when your loved one engages in what clinicians refer to as “splitting.”
What is splitting? It is a by-product of the dichotomous thinking (or black and white thinking) that is commonly a problem for people with BPD. For an in depth description of splitting, see the article "What is Splitting?"
Does your loved one engage in splitting? Here are some signs that they are splitting:
- Frequently having friends who are “on the outs” and others who seem to be put “on a pedestal”
- Causing rifts between family members by engaging in behaviors that turn family members against each other
- Having a lot of ups and downs in relationships -- such as, one minute saying that they love or need a person, moments later communicating anger or even hatred toward that person
How to Manage Splitting
What should you do when a loved one is engaged in splitting? There isn’t always an easy answer -— the best way to manage the situation will depend the nature of your relationship with your loved one, the intensity of the splitting, and the impact it is having on the family. However, there are some basic principles you can follow to manage splitting:
Cultivate Empathy. It is very hard to be understanding when a loved one is behaving in a way that is causing conflict for you and your family. However, trying to be empathic can help you manage the situation.
Remind yourself that the splitting behavior is part of a disorder. While splitting can seem very intentional and manipulative, your loved one is not doing this to gain satisfaction. They are just trying to survive in an internal world that is terrifying. This doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate the splitting, but it may give you insight into what they are going through.
Try Your Best To Manage Your Own Behavior. When a loved one with BPD is engaging in splitting, you may have very strong emotional reactions. For example, if the splitting is causing lots of family conflict, you may be feeling angry, resentful and fearful. However, it is important that no matter how upset you are feeling, you must keep your behavior under control. Yelling or engaging in hostile behavior will not help the situation or make your loved one see how destructive their behavior is.
Sometimes the best thing you can do in a splitting situation is to remind your family member or friend that you care about them. People with BPD are often terrified of being rejected or abandoned, and many of their behaviors, like splitting, may result from the intense emotions that come from this rejection sensitivity. Often, knowing that you care about them will reduce the splitting behavior.
Maintain Lines of Communication. When someone is engaging in splitting within the family, the best thing you can do is to keep lines of communication within the family open. For example, if an adolescent with BPD is causing conflict between parents, the parents should talk about the situation and what is happening, rather than closing off from one another.
Set Boundaries and Limits. There will be some times when you will need to set limits about behavior you will tolerate and behavior that is unacceptable. For example, you may decide that you will not tolerate your loved one telling you that they hate you, and that if they do that you will need to take a break from communicating with them for a predetermined amount of time. Communicate your expectations about this.
It is also important to set good boundaries and not become so involved in your loved one’s struggles that your own health suffers. Remember that caring for someone with BPD can be a tremendous burden, and that becoming so involved that you become a less effective caregiver will not help anyone. Again, the nature of the boundaries you create will depend on your relationship with your loved one (for example, parents of adolescents with BPD will need to be more involved because they are responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of their child).
Of course, in some cases, the limits will need to be more drastic. Sometimes family members and friends decide that they cannot continue to have a relationship with the loved one with BPD. This is an incredibly painful decision for everyone involved, but it can also be the most healthy choice in some situations. This is a decision that is best made with the help of a professional.
Call In the Professionals. It is important to remember that it is often very difficult to manage a loved one’s splitting behavior on your own. And, it is also unnecessary to go it alone. Encourage your loved one to get professional help, and consider finding a therapist of your own. Having your own therapist can help you balance your own needs with your responsibilities to your loved one. For more information on finding professional help, see these articles:
Giffin J. “Family Experience of Borderline Personality Disorder.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. 29(3):133-138, 2008.Gunderson, JG, Berkowitz, C. Family Guidelines: Multiple Family Group Program at McLean Hospital. Belmont, MA: New England Personality Disorder Association, 2006.
Scheirs JGM, Bok S. “Psychological distress in caretakers or relatives of patients with borderline personality disorder.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry. 53(3):195-203, 2007.